Comedy Drama

Holly Jolly Film Review: Happy Christmas

July 5, 2014Ben MK

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Christmas in July

By Ben Mk

Ask the average moviegoer about mumblecore and chances are they'll look at you with bewilderment. But ask anyone familiar with the films of Greta Gerwig, the Duplass brothers or Joe Swanberg — who are considered among the principle purveyors of that particular style of indie filmmaking — and you'll likely receive the opposite reaction. Over the past few years, Gerwig and the Duplasses have made the transition to the mainstream, with Swanberg following suit in 2013 with Drinking Buddies. Now with his latest film, Happy Christmas, the trend continues.

The film marks the second collaboration between writer/director Swanberg and his Drinking Buddies star, Anna Kendrick. Playing against type, Kendrick is Jenny Spelling, a 27-year-old, pot-smoking slacker who, after breaking up with her boyfriend, opts to move into the tiki-bar-themed basement of her older, more responsible brother, Jeff (Swanberg), his wife, author-turned-stay-at-home-mom Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their infant son, Jude (Swanberg's real-life son).

As these types of dramedies typically go, Jenny's presence upsets the natural equilibrium of Jeff and Kelly's household. For the most part, her behavior is careless and inconsiderate, ranging from the plain old disruptive — passing out drunk while at a party with her friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), requiring Jeff to retrieve her in the middle of the night — to the downright dangerous — nearly burning down the house after leaving the oven on unattended. However, Jenny's not without her positive traits.

She gets along wonderfully with Jude (though in all fairness, Swanberg's son seems to enjoy being on-camera more than anyone else in the cast, as he has a natural, playful rapport with all of the actors). And she helps to break Kelly out of her postpartum funk, rekindling Kelly's creative drive by encouraging her to write a piece of erotic fiction (à la Danielle Steel). As an added bonus, this leads to several (seemingly improvised and) amusing scenes between Kendrick, Lynskey and Dunham, where their characters brainstorm ideas for Kelly's tawdry novella.

Jenny also develops a relationship with Jude's babysitter, Kevin (Mark Webber), who also happens to be an avid pot enthusiast like her. But that's essentially the extent of the film's storyline. Keeping in the vein of Swanberg's earlier filmography, Happy Christmas is a fairly low-key comedy-drama that's light on plot but heavy on realism. As such, it registers primarily as a slice of life — specifically, that stage where one transitions from early adulthood to real adulthood.

There's also an autobiographical component to it, with Swanberg playing a character who's a film director and Lynskey's character being based on Swanberg's real-life wife, Kris Williams, whom herself had to leave behind a career in independent film to raise their child. However, it's really the diametrically opposed personalities of Jenny and Kelly that are at the core of the movie, and Kendrick and Lynskey do a fantastic job at conveying their characters' conflicting perspectives on life, while the script provides them with the common ground to forge a friendship on.

The Bottom Line

Don't go looking to Happy Christmas for the kind of comedic fare that you might find in a Judd Apatow production. Swanberg plays to his strengths, delivering a film rooted in believable characters who find themselves in a situation that audiences — especially those in their twenties or thirties — should find very easy to relate to. And he invites viewers to find the humor in that situation, and to come away from it reflecting a bit on their own lives. It's not a breakthrough, but with recognizable names like Kendrick, Lynskey and Dunham in tow, it's sure to help him break out and into the mainstream. [★★★½]

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